Exercise for Substance Abuse – A Case Study

This case study is one example of how exercise interventions can assist with improving mental health, activities of daily living and independence when mental health and in this case the impact of substance use is involved.*

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as a state of well being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

ESSA’s joint position statement on mental health states that mental health and physical health are fundamentally connected. A proportion of individuals experiencing mental illness will also experience poor physical health, and poor physical health can in turn be associated with poor mental health.

Given the well-known relationship between physical and mental health,  an increased focus is placed on holistic multidisciplinary treatment that can enhance quality of life to improve the physical and mental health outcomes for individuals living with a mental health disorder.

In this case study, mental health, substance use and exercise interventions were investigated.


Referral and History

Amy (name changed) is a 52-year-old female diagnosed with a history of severe alcohol use disorder/alcohol dependency, anxiety disorder and severe depression since 1988. The client has presented for detox and stabilisation with the aim of abstinence from alcohol. Her drinking history includes 2-3 bottles of wine per day or 1 bottle of spirit per day, currently for the past 24 weeks, increasing to 4 bottles on weekends. The longest period of abstinence lasted 6 months and 3 weeks. Amy’s last drink was the day before admission.

Amy was referred by her treating psychiatrist to an Accredited Exercise Physiologist for assistance with mood stabilisation, substance urges, cravings and abstinence management via appropriate exercise and behavioural change programs.

Exercise Intervention

It is important to note that no exercise was started until after the detox period, usually 3-5 days but could be up to 7 depending on the substance type and quantity. The following exercise schedule was then implemented:

1. 3-12-week exercise program personalised to the individual
2. 3 x sessions per week, with progression from 30 minutes to 45 minutes over the duration of the program
3. Daily step target of 10,000 steps per day


This client experienced significant improvements for mood and alcohol urge post exercise. Amy’s scores for depression, anxiety and stress decreased by over 50%. Overall, Amy’s strength increased and improvements in her mental health from the implementation of exercise into her lifestyle were evident.


*These case studies are based on research conducted by Accredited Exercise Physiologists, and are examples of how exercise can assist in a variety of factors relating to mental and physical health and well-being. It is important to not begin any exercise program without the supervision and guidance of an Allied Health professional. This case study has been re-written to be appropriate for the general public and was conducted by Accredited Exercise Physiologist: Kirrily Gould.